In March, the RI Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) raised the price of monthly passes from $62 to $70, raised transfers from $.50 to $1.00 and eliminated the discounted $26 pass for 15 rides. RIPTA kept the basic $2 state-wide rate, whether you ride for two stops or all the way from Westerly to Providence.
These fares, paid mostly by hard working low-income folks, were already well above the national average. Last summer a survey of 21 reasonably comparable bus systems found average basic fare of $1.60, average transfer of $.09 (many had free transfers), and the average monthly pass cost $46.15. Most systems charged higher fares for longer or express rides.
High fares may be one reason our commute by transit rate here is barely half of what would be expected in a state with our density. Thus RIPTA is far from living up to its potential to reduce congestion and pollution and contribute to the rebuilding of our economy. Another round of fare hikes is a further step backward.
One reason standard RIPTA fares may be relatively high is the need make back the cost of free rides for seniors and people with disabilities with incomes under twice the Federal poverty level. This free riding has grown to about 5.6 million rides a year, about 30% of all rides. It also contributes to the perception that our bus service is just for the poor, which may make it harder to attract paying commuters, especially as buses can be overcrowded during peak hours. With deficits looming, last spring the legislature repealed the law prohibiting RIPTA from charging fares to the seniors and disabled, instead allowing up to half fare for those groups. Naturally those riding free wanted to keep their benefits protested, and as it now stands, RIPTA is planning to charge those groups 50 cents a ride which is just 1/4 of the regular fare starting July 1.
Reflecting the decency of Rhode Islanders who want to help the poor, many groups support the continuation of the free fares. It certainly is a feel-good position, and there are folks in dire poverty that really cannot afford additional expenditures. But there is another side to the story. Twice the Federal poverty level is $31,860 for a couple, $48,500 for a household of four which may be more than some low income single working people who pay full fare. Perhaps this threshold could be lowered to protect the very poor. Low income people on medicaid are already eligible to get free rides to any kind of medical trip including pharmacy visits.
So what is a fair fare policy? My opinion is that RIPTA should hold down fare increases for all passengers first by reducing internal inefficiencies and attracting more paying passengers through better marketing and promotions. More state revenue should go for improving conditions for all passengers, such as keeping the Kennedy Plaza building open after 7:00 PM instead of leaving passengers waiting outside in the cold and dark. Passenger revenue can be increased by higher fares on long distance express routes and charging the now-free riders half fare only during the peak hours and letting them ride free during the off-peak hours when more space is available. This can help raise revenue to keep the system going, make more space available to help attract more commuters while keeping a safety net for the poor.